“One day, the world will become one vast homogeneous airport terminal,” said Steve McCurry during the opening sequences of Denis Delestrac’s feature-length documentary on the life of the famous American photographer.
“It’s all going to be glass, metal and concrete,” McCurry says of Jordi Esgleas Marroi’s exquisite cinematography, filmed through a train window along the New York City subway as we pass a phalanx of anonymous office buildings.
“You could be in Shanghai, Kabul or Buenos Aires, everything will be the same,” says the photographer. “I’m not sure you want to live in a colorless, differenceless world.”
It’s a surprisingly deep opening from a photographer that many consider cutesy. Connoisseurs of photography, in particular, appreciate his work. Teju Cole, writing for The New York Times, calls his images “boring, but extremely popular”. And it is true that his perfect images present a rather sentimental vision of the developing world, where he mainly works.
Packaged in beautifully printed tomes with titles such as The path to Buddha, In the shade of the mountains and The unattended moment, his “photo album” unfolds like a long travelogue, captured in a skilfully composed Kodachrome. McCurry: In pursuit of color, which premiered at DOC NYC film festival, aims to show that McCurry is much more than those tabletop books, pivoting around a life-changing decision.
It was in the late 1970s, and the young photographer had traveled across India. About a year later, escaping a heat wave, he headed to northern Pakistan and the cooler climates of the Chitral Valley in Hindukush. He stayed for a while in a cheap hostel, where he befriended Afghan men, who recounted the ongoing conflict across the mountain.
“We were talking and having dinner together,” McCurry recalls on a phone call. And then they said, ‘The world doesn’t really care what’s going on. We want you to come and tell our story. So they are the ones who suggested it. And they are the ones who took me and showed me.
Remarkably, he followed them, crossing Afghanistan illegally, then spent months photographing the young men, passing through destroyed villages, as they prepared to lead a guerrilla war against the Communist government. They were farmers, mountaineers, some barely men, and that’s how he captured them, not as soldiers. But when, soon after, Soviet troops arrived in Afghanistan to support the government, triggering a cold proxy war, media around the world woke up to the conflict and McCurry suddenly had a new currency. He was leading the pack.
His photos, published in Time magazine and elsewhere, won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for their “infiltration photograph of Afghan rebels”. And, never having intended to be a conflict photographer, he became one, in a way.
Over the next decade, spanning the Iran-Iraq war, Lebanon, Cambodia, the Philippines and Kuwait, he quickly established himself as one of the leading photojournalists of his generation, joining the legendary Magnum Photos agency in en route and returning to Afghanistan. on several occasions, taking the famous portrait of “Afghan Girl” by Sharbat Gula in 1984.
McCurry is sensitive to criticisms of the role of photographers in perpetuating a reductive perception of the developing world, and to the lack of people in that world invited to tell their own stories.
“When I photographed the ‘Afghan girl’ people were desperate,” he says. “They wanted humanitarian aid and they wanted weapons. So being there and documenting that, I think that’s a good thing.
He turns the conversation to an ongoing conflict. “The situation in Yemen is quite dramatic. Should we not therefore see that? Should we turn away? Should we say, “Well, let the Yemenis tell their own story”? “
McCurry’s footage of the Gulf War and the apocalyptic scenes he encountered are particularly memorable, but the film suggests that at that time, in 1991, being a witness so close to the worst aspects of humanity was beginning. to wreak havoc. He says he tried to step back, to return to “a more humanist, poetic vision of the world”. And it seems he’s refocused on the passions that first inspired him to become a photographer, capturing ancient traditions and dying cultures.
Repositioning himself as a visual storyteller and not a photojournalist, filming what he wanted, rather than what an editor asked him, gave him a more creative license. But it also got him in trouble when the extent to which he or his studio manipulated his footage was revealed. Documentary addresses scandal of 2016 but, of course, the defense is partial, and we hear nothing of his criticism.
The film also features a lonely man, driven by a difficult childhood, and offers him a redemptive end. But McCurry resists the aging master’s cliché tale, seeking solace after photographing too much darkness. He told me it was a creative decision to step back from the conflict.
“In life you want to grow and you want to learn new things, to work in different ways, to go to different places, to reinvent yourself,” he reflects. “You only live once. It’s good to experiment. I can’t imagine getting stuck in the same way of saying what you know, or on the same subject. It’s good to evolve, and that’s what I did. Isn’t that a good thing? “
- McCurry: The Pursuit of Color will be released in US theaters by Dogwoof